Stronger Movie vs True Story Review

written by Laura J.

Stronger by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter (2014)

Stronger directed by David Gordan Green (2017)

This is the true story of Jeff Bauman who was watching the Boston Marathon in 2013 and was right next to the bomb that went off and he lost both of his legs. The book was released the following year, so it just documents the first year after the bombing.

Book review

I was gripped by this memoir right from the start. He begins with the day of the race and the bomb going off, then backtracks to what his life had been beforehand. So it starts intense and I was invested right away. It is also written in such a personal way and when I sat down to read, I would get sucked in and next thing I knew, I had been reading for hours!

In the book he talks about how someone was saying he needs to write a book and release is asap, while the event is still fresh in peoples minds. On one hand, it is good he wrote it down when it was still fresh in his mind. But I would have liked a follow up of some sort to hear about his life a few years later. For example, in 2016 Erin, the woman he was dating throughout the time the book was written, ran the Boston Marathon in 2016 and Jeff was at the finish line for her. That must have been such an incredible experience and it would have been so cool to read about it. I also respect their desire for privacy though and in the book, he talks about how Erin struggled with him writing the book because she didn’t like everyone knowing their personal lives. Neither asked for fame, and it would hard to adjust to that and I’m sure they value their privacy.

All in all, I admired his honesty in this book and I would definitely recommend it! Even though I wouldn’t call it a page turner, I blew through it and practically finished it in one sitting! (Okay, maybe it was like three sittings, but still.)

Movie review

I was curious about this movie because it has Jake Gyllenhaal (Gyllenhaal fans may also be interested ibn my book vs movie episodes for Enemy (based on The Double by Jose Saramago) and Nocturnal Animals movie) but what really piqued my interest was seeing it was directed by David Gordan Green. Yes, he is known for horror movies, more specifically the Halloween movies. But he also directed Joe which stars Nicolas Cage and is absolutely fantastic! I was just singing this movies praises in my No Country video, and I’m hear doing it again! Seriously, go watch that movie right now!!!

Anyway, with this and Joe, I get the vibe Green likes to have a lot of improvisation and the actors always feel so natural and real. You almost forget you are watching a movie, because no one seems like they are acting.

The book had me emotional at times, but the movie had me bawling at two different times. Like literally had tears going down my face. The last time that happened was when I watched The Silent Twins in theaters.

From here on out, I will be getting into the plot details which means there will be spoilers for both book and movie!

Before the bombing

Before the day of the bombing, Jeff was 27 years old and had been working at the Costco deli department for 4 years. In 2012 he met Erin and the two began dating soon after. As the months went on, he started to become less and less motivated to drive to where she lives after he got off work because he would be too tired after work. Then, he wouldn’t drive to see her because he would rather hang out with his buddies. Before long, they had broken up.

She was getting ready to run the 2013 Boston Marathon for charity and he knew she had this fundraiser event in March and he showed up because he knew it was important to her. After this, they got back together.

In the movie, they weren’t officially together the day of the race. They had broken up, but it was their third time breaking up and both kind of assumed they would get back together because that was the routine in their relationship. Of course, after the bombing, they did get back together because she loved him and cared about him and he needed her.

But because they weren’t technically together, she hadn’t expected him to be at the race anyway and he showed up by himself.

In real life, he was there spectating with some of Erin’s friends. They had met Erin at mile 18, then moved on to the finish line to see her cross.

Also, another difference is that in real life he had an apartment with roommates and doesn’t move in with his mom until after he loses his legs, whereas in the movie he is living with his mom.

The bombing

In the movie we see a guy with a hoodie and sunglasses brush past Jeff while he is holding a sign for Erin but that’s it. In real life, the guy was right beside him and they had made eye contact and Jeff noticed the guy was off because he wasn’t cheering or happy. He described the man as being “all business”. Jeff looks back at the race, then when he looks over again, he sees the guys backpack on the ground which he right away thinks is weird. Within seconds of thinking this, the bomb goes off.

In the book he says how when woke up to him lying on the ground, surrounded by a pool of blood and his legs turned into “applesauce”, he assumed he was going to die but says he was okay with that. Later in the book he says of this, “I didn’t want to die. No way. I wanted to live. But my body had been ripped apart; I was lying in a pool of my own blood, and when that happens, you die. There was nothing I could do about it. I was going to die. So, I accepted it. I saw the good in my life. I was happy for the time I had. Maybe that doesn’t make me a fighter.  Maybe even though acceptance lasted only a second, until Carlos Arredondo lifted me up, that doesn’t gibe with  the “no pain, no gain, work hard, play hard, never give up” style of looking at the world. Maybe a true hero would have screamed, Hell no. But I’m not that guy.”

He was the first person from the finish line who was brought to the hospital and the photo of him being wheeled to an ambulance with Carlos Arredondo by his side was one of the first photos released to the media and went viral.

In the book, Erin was at mile 25 when she hit a wall of runners. She thought the race was backed up and poorly organized. But then word got back about the explosion and she started walking her way out of the chaos. She walked five miles before being able to call someone. As someone who has ran marathons, I can’t imagine dealing with the stress of everything after having ran 25 miles and then walked another five! Obviously, what the victims went through was far worse, but still.

In the movie, she sees the bomb go off in the distance when it happens and she hadn’t known Jeff was even there until seeing his picture on the news.

Bauman Strong

Jeff became famous overnight with the release of his photo. Seventeen people in total lost limbs, but only three lost both legs. Jeff’s legs had to be amputated above the knee, which means he lost four joints (both ankles and his knee’s). The more joints you lose, the harder recovery and walking on prosthetics is.

He and his family received countless cards and gifts and strangers set up a donation page for him. The money is in a trust which ensures that he doesn’t use the money for something crazy and unnecessary, but just for medical bills and things he needs to live.

In the movie, Jeff seemed more put off by his fame. He also had no interest in meeting Carlos, the man who saved his life. We see that he writes “Lt. Dan” when he awakes from surgery, and there are some moments where he makes jokes. But he seemed more resentful for sure in the movie than he had in the book. Granted, maybe because the book was written so soon, he had to put a good face on things and therefore didn’t get as into those potential bitter and resentful feelings so as not to seem ungrateful.

In both, the Boston hockey team asks him to wave a flag at their game and he agrees. In the book, it is a positive experience. Whereas in the movie, it is overwhelming and when in the elevator afterwards, he has a PTSD moment with Erin.

In the book he talks about meeting people and shaking their hands and signing things and it seems like those moments meant a lot to him. As well as times when someone would pay his tab when he was out. Whereas in the movie, again, he seemed to have more issues with this. That’s not to say in real life he didn’t struggle with the way he was idolized. He didn’t get why people thought so much of him and he writes, “I didn’t want anyone to see me. As long as they didn’t see me, they could think whatever they wanted about  me: that I was a hero, or whatever. I wasn’t a hero, though. I was a guy in a wheelchair with no legs. Why would anyone want to see that?”

As he was learning to walk, it was incredibly difficult and the felt this pressure from the world for him to learn to do it as soon as possible but there were days he doubted himself, “Nothing makes you happier than a kid writing to say you  are their hero. But it was also hard. People would write and tell me, “You are Boston Strong, Jeff.” Or “You are what makes this country great.” Or “I know if you can make it through this, Jeff, that means we’ll all be okay.”  But what if I didn’t make it? What if I broke down? What if people saw how frustrated the little things made me?”

In the book, the hockey team reaches out to him four months after the bombing and wants him to wave the flag again, but they request that this time he walk. He wasn’t even able to walk at this point but tells them he could stand. With this he talks about how he felt like he wasn’t being treated like a human, but just some mascot that could do whatever they told him to do.

In the movie, there is a great moment after the throws that pitch at Fenway Park, when a guys stops them to tell Jeff that seeing him out there gave the guy hope. He’d had a brother die in Iraq and it makes the guy angry and upset, but that seeing Jeff out there still living, fills the guy with hope. It was such a great moment and definitely one of the scenes that really got my tears going. In part because what Jeff means to so many people, but in the movie it’s a great moment because Jeff is doing better emotionally and he is actually grateful to this guy for sharing and it gives Jeff more hope in turn.

A quote near the end of the book reads, “I’m coming out of this experience with damage. I guess you’d call it suspicion. I know how evil humans can be,  and I’m watchful, because the bad dudes are out there. But I know something else, too: bad people are rare.  Good people are everywhere.”

Jeff and Erin

Erin is a hige part of the book and movie because she basically becomes Jeff’s caregiver. Not only does she literally care for him (in real life and in the movie, she quits her job and moves in with him so she can be there for him as he recovers) but she also helps him emotionally and will stand up for him when people are pressuring him to do something he doesn’t want to do.

In the movie, after the thing with the flag, she tells him she needs to tell his family that he is still emotionally recovering but he says he can’t. In the book he talks about how around everyone he always felt like he had to put a good face on and make it seem like he was fine but around Erin he would get angry and show his struggles. This, as well as caring for him and feeling like she was losing herself, takes a toll on her. In the movie we see this a few different times, but one of these times is after a rehab session she gets in an argument with Patty, Jeff’s mom, as well as Jeff-pointing out to him that what happened has impacted the lives of so many others around him.

We also have the scene in the movie when she tells him she is pregnant and they get in a fight because he says he can’t deal with having a baby right now. After this fight, she goes to the apartment to get her stuff and leaves him in the car. He then gets out and drags himself to the door and is calling out to her to be let in. In this moment is when we get flashbacks to after the bombing and man, it is just such an intense scene! Gyllenhaal said Green let the camera roll for a long time and he felt like he was no longer pretending but was really going there. He isn’t a method actor and firmly believes in utilizing imagination while working, but this movie, and this scene in particular did a number on him because he felt it so deeply and intensely.

I have so many emotions about this scene though because on one hand it seems too cold of Erin to leave him like that. But then you can also see how she is fed up with immature, self-centered behavior. All around, it is just a heartbreaking scene.

In real life, they had a night where they went out and Jeff drank a lot and Erin had a few and so she wasn’t comfortable driving him. This leads to an argument and Jeff punches the car radio. They end up staying the night with Erin’s friend in town but her place has stairs which is one of the reasons Jeff had wanted to go home. He ends up trying to drag himself up the stairs and the whole thing is just terrible for both Jeff and Erin. So, similar in some ways to the movie scene.  

Speaking of Erin’s pregnancy though, in real life, Erin and Jeff had bought a home of their own with money that was donated to him and it was after they had their own place and were doing better that they found out they were going to have a baby.

Sadly, in 2017 they split up and are no longer together.

Carlos

As said, in the movie he has no interest in meeting Carlos. In the book, they actually meet early on and become very close friends and do a lot of appearances together. Jeff has no issues as being seen as team with Carlos and from the start was grateful to him.

In the movie, he doesn’t meet him until the end and Carlos shares the story of his own two sons who both had died and how Carlos had tried to commit suicide at one point. I get why the movie delayed this scene, because the movie being structured the way it is, this scene is all the more powerful. Basically, Carlos felt he had been unable to save his own sons, but by saving Jeff he felt like he was making up for that which I thought was just so beautiful. In the book he says of Carlos, “But he saved my life. I mean that: I would be dead today without Carlos Arredondo. And now he can say to himself, if he ever struggled with it before: Something good happened because of me. It’s a good thing I survived.”

The conspiracy

On top of everything else, something Jeff had to to deal with was people thinking the whole bombing was a conspiracy and that he was a paid actor. In the book he writes,

“It doesn’t bother me, though. Why should it? I understand there is a group of people who think I am an actor, born without legs. That I’m a fake victim of a fake bombing. Why would I do that? I’m not sure. I don’t know if they think every victim is a fake, or if all the spectators on that block were fake, or if they think the marathon  itself was fake. I don’t want to know. Worrying about conspiracy theories would be like hating the bombers, or obsessively thinking about how things could have gone differently. I don’t have time for it. I need my strength. I  need to look forward. I can’t waste my energy on losers.”

Jeff in 2023

I found this article that was published this past April, ten years since the bombing. He talks about how after the divorce from Erin he struggles with depression and started drinking even more. He was able to pull himself out of it and has now been sober for six years. The article says, “He has stopped drinking for six years. He graduated from UMass Lowell in 2020 with a degree in psychology and legal studies, and then went to law school for a year and a half. The tragedy still haunts him. “It’s always there,” he says. “And certain smells, even now, I’ll smell, like, burning rubber or, like, fireworks. And it’s like, ‘Oh, I know that smell.’ I do a great job at kind of like shutting it down and moving past it.””

He is now really into sled hockey, and in general seems to be living a very active life.

Some last comments

I just wanted to touch on some things I haven’t already. In the movie, there is a scene when he and his friends are under the influence and Jeff drives with the help of a friend pressing the gas and breaks-this didn’t happen in the book.

We also see in book and movie that his mom struggles with alcohol and late in the night she will talk to Jeff through his door telling him about how he owes people for all they have given him and guilt trips him. She also has complicated emotions towards Erin, and the movie captures all of this really well.

Jeff’s first shower post the bombing didn’t happen until a few weeks later and he said that he had a breakdown in the shower because all of the smells of that day were still in his hair and on his body and the shower made the smells, and therefore the memories, more potent. In the movie we get the shower scene which is emotional but in a different way.

Book vs Movie

This is such a tough one because the book is so personal and as said, time flew while I was reading it. Even though there were times it made me emotional, the movie made me cry so that makes me want to say the movie wins. But then I think about certain things in the movie that were switched around and changed in order to make it more emotional and so knowing the true story just makes me aware of the manipulation there. But is it such a bad thing that they change some things around in order to make a more powerful movie? I don’t know, because with it being a true story it makes me wish they stayed even closer to the truth. Overall though they did do a good job and capturing the true story.

Again though, the book may not have been the best written book out there, but I appreciated his honesty and it was a book I didn’t want to put down.

I kind of want to say this one is a tie. Partly because the book was written by just a normal guy who wasn’t a trained writer at all, yet was able to share his story in a way that pulled me in. The movie is such a powerful story and so well done with amazing acting and I literally cried so much while watching it! So I think I am going to refuse to pick a winner because it would be unfair to whichever doesn’t win. Read the book and watch the movie because they are both worth it!